People are Fleeing but the South is Safe
Refugees at the border, a pro-government taxi driver, and a ghost town give conflicting signals of what to expect from Nicaragua in mid-2018
This is the first article in a three-part series on Nicaraguan perspectives and the atmosphere in Nicaragua in mid-2018 at the height of the civil unrest in the nation. Click here for the second article and here for the third.
San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
The border guard at the airport in San Juan, Costa Rica makes a scary machine-gun motion when I tell him we are going to Nicaragua. “It is not safe there,” he says as he stamps our passports. A Costa Rican I know from years back, Thomas, tells me in an email three times not to go, that everyday it is getting more dangerous. The water is so unsafe in Nicaragua that someone he knows got sick just from showering, he adds. Our taxi driver who takes us from the airport to Liberia, a town close to the border, is shocked we are heading to Nicaragua. “Everyday people are leaving Nicaragua but no one is going there,” he states. In other words, you might want to think twice about going there.
It is early July, 2018. Protests and violence in Nicaragua started in April and have only grown more severe by the day.
No matter. We go.
For one, the Costa Rican prices are unsustainably high for our budget. For another, the southern part of Nicaragua is reportedly safer. An AirBnb host in the south texts that the region has been unaffected by the violence and protests. He might not be objective since he depends on tourism but hope overrides my fears. Lastly, to date no foreigners have been caught up in the conflict. The chances we will be the first seem slim.
After a quick night’s rest in Liberia, we get up early to catch a quick bus to the border. At the bus station, people changing money ask us if we are going to Nicaragua. We affirm. One man makes the same machine-gun shooting motion of the airport customs officer.
At the border, we dismount and notice that almost no one is going into Nicaragua. However, in the Costa Rican customs office there are scores of Nicaraguans waiting. We assume it is to process their asylum applications. In order to help their asylum applications, they are likely saying they are part of a societal group (like a religion) targeted by the Nicaraguan government.
After paying our exit tax and getting exit stamps on the Costa Rican side, we start to walk through a no-man’s land the size of two or so football fields. Trucks waiting for customs inspections line the road but we are neither fully in Costa Rica or Nicaragua. The conflict in Nicaragua has slowed the transport of goods across Central America. Nicaragua is in the middle of the region between Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Belize to the north and Costa Rica and Panama to the south. I read that the conflict is disrupting the flow of essentials for the entire region.
Half-way or so across the no-man’s land we see a Nicaraguan soldier with an automatic weapon. My mother-in-law, who is traveling with us, looks frightened. She looks at me as if to say “what do we do?” I tell her not to worry, keep walking.
Finally, we arrive at a border checkpoint. Our passports are checked, and then we are instructed to go inside a building which is like an airport international arrivals hall. We are the only people in the arrival hall entering Nicaragua. We pay our arrival tax, get our passports stamped, and we are in Nicaragua.
We are immediately accosted by many taxi drivers offering us rides to our destination, San Juan del Sur, a 30-40 minute ride from the border. It is time to bargain. A man ‘arranges’ the taxi for us, herding us to a specific driver where we begin to bargain the price. He asks for a tip and I give him one dollar for this unnecessary service.
The ‘arrangers’ and others like them are common not just in Nicaragua but all over Latin America. Without asking, people will start to wash your windshield at traffic lights, help you back out of a parking spot, and hand you your bags that are under the long-distance bus when you arrive at your destination. A tip is expected, even though the service was not requested or desired. Too few jobs to be had in a poor and unequal region. As we are about to find out, the situation in Nicaragua is even worse than most countries of the region.
We bargain a ride for 25 dollars, knowing we could get it for less but also wanting to respect the livelihoods of the people. An extra few dollars for us is nothing; for them it is a significant percentage of their daily income.
The taxi driver, Marcos, tells us we are likely his only clients for the day. Business has been terribly slow due to the conflict. He has eight children. Despite the recent hardship, he is 100 percent behind the government.
Marcos’ father fought in the civil war in the 1980s for the left-wing Sandinistas. The Sandinistas fought against the extremely corrupt, U.S.-backed regime of Samoza. Once the Sandinistas deposed Samoza, the United States trained and financed the Contras, an opposition army, to overthrow the Sandinistas.
“I wish the U.S. would just leave Nicaragua alone — they were responsible for the civil war, and they are helping to create the violence we see here today,” argues Marcos. “We have everything we need here to thrive — power, water, great roads and an abundance of food. We are the bread basket of Latin America!” As he talks, Marcos gestures to the massive wind power turbines, Lake Nicaragua, and the extremely well-built highway on which we are traveling. I cannot argue. For one, the new highway and turbines are impressive. Moreover, I am an American ashamed of our nation’s imperialist history in Latin America.
The Sandinistas still control the government and Daniel Ortega is their leader. Ortega was a Sandinista fighter in the civil war and has served multiple terms as president. Many say that he has rigged multiple elections and enriched his friends to stay in power.
Marcos, however, will hear none of this talk. He says the government has been good to the common man and it is important to support the government to pay it back for all it has given. In addition to the highway and wind power, Marcos references the guaranteed healthcare and the farm animals the government provides to peasants. “If someone gives you a gift, you accept it, say thank you, and help that person. We help the Sandinistas because they have given us gifts.”
Marcos says the south is full of Sandinista supporters and consequently there are no protests here. I ask Marcos what has triggered the massive protests in Managua and other cities to the north. He says that people were apparently mad about a rise in taxes to fund pension and healthcare expansions. “The taxes would have been minimal compared to the increased benefits,” argues Marcos. “The government agreed to withdraw their plan for increased taxes but the protests have just gotten larger. It was all just an excuse for big business and foreign countries — like the U.S. — to challenge the government.”
I ask if the Sandinista government is as corrupt as I have read. He says that there is corruption to a degree but what government is not corrupt, he rhetorically asks. No government is perfect but again, the Sandinistas have given the common people so much. Moreover, Marcos brags that the Sandinistas have created the safest country in Central America. “The gangs like MS13 have not penetrated Nicaragua, in contrast to the delinquency and extreme violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Costa Rica is just a puppet of the United States,” he firmly states. Thanks to the Sandinistas, Nicaragua is the exception to the region. Marcos’ Nicaragua is safe, independent and happy.
We arrive in San Juan del Sur. I pay Marcos 30 dollars, five more than the agreed upon sum. I tell him to buy his kids a nice treat. We hop out to find a nearly deserted town of empty hotels and an empty beach. A car of armed police drives by on patrol. The police and the emptiness give it an eerie feel. But I trust Marcos. We are in the south. The protests are in the north. All will be ok, I think, as we begin to look for an accommodation.